So, just how big of a deal is college binge drinking?

There’s no shortage of media coverage of drunken excess on college campuses.  Just this week, the New York Times filled us in on how social media facilitates students’ expedient drinking and hooking up — so much so that traditional collegetown bars  are becoming obsolete and closing shop in towns like Ithaca, N.Y., home of  Cornell University.

Such extreme stories would have us believe that college kids are out of  control, even drunker and higher than their parents before them. Actually,  though, that’s not the case. Properly collected study data — which has gone  unmentioned in recent media trend stories — suggest that today’s college  students aren’t misusing alcohol or drugs at any higher rates than their parents  did. For example, according to the newly released 2011 results from the National  Survey on Drug Use and Health, among people aged 18 to 25, just under 40%  binged on alcohol in the past month, down slightly from nearly 42% in 2003. Most  surveys of people this age conducted since the early 1980s show similar  rates.

Among Americans aged 18 to 20, 31% binge drank (five or more drinks on  one occasion) in the last month — but 53% of people that age drank no alcohol at  all. In terms of illegal drug use, today’s young people are also indulging less.  For example, while 15% of 24-year-olds report  having ever tried cocaine, nearly 29% of 50- to 54-year-olds have done so.  (Since most people who will ever use drugs have tried them by their late teens  or early 20s, the difference here is not likely due to the fact that older  people have simply been around longer.)

Even on prescription drug misuse, the news is good. Past-month nonmedical use  of prescription drugs among people of college age fell 14% from 2010 to 2011.  And the overall percentage of people over 12 who used painrelievers nonmedically  in the past month has been stable at roughly 2% since 2002, with the current  figure at 1.7%. The same is true for the percent of the population who have  diagnosable problems with prescription pain drugs: it’s just under 1% and has  been since 2002.

As for the recent Times story, “Last Call for College Bars,” the  newspaper apparently got played by a group of drunken students, who lied about  their names — and possibly about their other experiences as well. So, here’s a  hint to the rest of the media covering youthful misbehavior: if you want actual  trend data,  the National  Household Survey on Drugs and the Monitoring  the Future survey are both reliable, annually updated sources — and they  won’t lie about their names, either.

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